What Is Percussive Therapy? Experts Break Down The Popular Recovery Technique
Massage guns are having a moment, and if you've tried one, you know why. These handheld devices are designed to ease discomfort, soothe tension and tightness, and promote faster muscle recovery. And they do all of that through percussive massage therapy. (Picture a sleek mini jackhammer that you can use on tight, tense muscles, and you get a general idea.)
Chiropractors, massage therapists, sports coaches, and physical therapists use versions of percussive therapy—and now with so many personal massage guns on the market, this method is becoming even more widespread. If you're curious to try it yourself, here's what to know about the popular percussion tools.
What is percussive therapy?
Percussive therapy sends waves of impulses into the body's tissues. With a massage gun specifically, quick, repetitive bursts of pressure from the massage head—that rapid up-and-down movement—combine with specifically calibrated frequencies and amplitudes to create pressure and vibration. According to massage gun manufacturers, this results in better blood flow, less inflammation, and more range of motion—all of which can create a positive effect on the body and ease muscle tension and aches.
"What initially informed our products was my experience as a chiropractor and my own understanding of the body," explains Jason Wersland, D.C., founder and chief wellness officer at Therabody, which manufactures the Theragun, arguably one of the most well-known percussive massage tools on the market. "The creation was actually rooted in my own need for something to supplement my treatments as I was recovering from an accident."
While the appeal is clear for athletes or serious fitness enthusiasts, the benefits of percussive therapy aren't only for muscle recovery. They seem to be effective on garden-variety aches and pains, too. "We use percussive therapy on almost all patients in our office," says Lynelle McSweeney, D.C., a holistic chiropractor. "It always helps us to get in a deeper, longer-lasting effect on the joints and muscles, and it helps release trapped nerves, muscle spasm, and tissue adhesions."
For Caitlin Moreland, P.T., DPT, a massage gun can be a great complementary tool with patients. "Manual therapy can be hard on the therapist's hands or fingers, so equipment that is efficacious and gives us a break is always nice," she notes.
Percussive vs. vibration therapy.
There's a fair amount of confusion and overlap between percussive and vibration therapy. These are similar, but separate, therapies that both apply force to a muscle. However, they vary in amplitude, or how deep that force is applied, as well as speed. "Vibration therapy is more of a superficial application," explains McSweeney, as it generally involves having patients sit, stand, or lie on a platform that vibrates. "It's great for increasing blood flow in the muscle and relaxing the muscle. Percussion therapy works at a different frequency, with a deeper therapeutic application to release trigger points, break up scar tissue, and release nerve pain."
Targeted vibration therapy is another facet of the percussion/vibration space, which involves focusing vibrations on a more specific part of the body. It works at three to five times the speed of percussion therapy but with a much smaller stroke. That faster rate makes it easier to direct more energy very comfortably, which means you can use it on more sensitive spots—think the jaw, neck, fingers, or Achilles tendon—that wouldn't take well to the blunter force of percussive therapy.
While there is some crossover between percussive and vibration therapies, largely due to the varying frequencies, amplitudes, and strokes of respective tools—it's important to distinguish the two. Percussive technology, in the form of the massage gun, is widely recognized as a self-care technology, while vibration devices typically require a health practitioner. Still, "they both have a place and a therapeutic value," says McSweeney.
What are the science-backed benefits?
While still somewhat limited, there is research that backs up the efficacy of both percussive and vibration therapies. One study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that vibration therapy and massage may both be effective in preventing delayed onset muscle soreness.
Another study on the acute effects of percussive massage therapy, specifically with a Hypervolt—another big name in the massage-gun world—found that five minutes of treatment effectively increased range of motion in participants. The study authors theorized that percussive massage treatment likely combined elements of both conventional massage and vibration therapy. They also suggested this treatment may optimize flexibility, as part of a warm-up regimen. However, they noted that future studies should consider variables in massage durations, frequencies, and choice of massage heads.
All that said, don't make the mistake of assuming a massage gun is a true alternative to massage or physical therapy. "While a percussive therapy tool may work in breaking up muscle tissue, thereby increasing oxygen and blood flow into the area, these tools do not introduce the necessary lengthening that tightened muscle groups need," says Audra Testa, a licensed massage therapist. Instead, she advises considering massage guns a complementary therapy.
There is certainly much more to learn about this therapy method. And as the massage gun space continues to grow for both personal and professional use, it's a safe bet that we'll soon see studies digging deeper into the different applications and benefits of both percussive and vibration therapies.
Percussive massage guns to consider.
The big players in percussive massage therapy include the classic Theragun from Therabody, Hypervolt from Hyperice, and TimTam, all with tools at varying price points. The premium price tags often come with various perks and upgrades like replaceable massage heads, varying speeds, longer battery life, and carrying cases.
Precautions for percussive therapy.
Percussive massage therapy has its benefits, but it has its limitations, too. It's not a fix for everything that ails you, and diagnosing the real issue is best left to the pros. "My hands give me necessary information about a patient's body and manifest therapeutic touch for my patients, neither of which could be done with a massage gun," says Moreland.
Testa has a similar opinion: "There are over 600 muscles in the human body, and it's difficult for someone who isn't schooled in anatomy, kinesiology, and physiology to pinpoint what's ailing them," she says. In other words, while a massage gun might offer short-term relief, it's not necessarily treating the real reason for your pain and discomfort.
Still, for calming those tight muscles and soothing tension, a good massage gun can be your best friend.d
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